Friday, Sept. 27, 1996
Ahem. I was leading up to a point before another technical glitch. (Battery ran low as I was typing frantically at 2 a.m. with a flashlight shining on my notes in a cold tent, all of which I would sum up this way: Friends, we have a way to go before the universal information appliance is a reality.) I’d been thinking Wednesday about the desperate hard work of scrabbling for a livelihood.
I’d wanted to add the example of the two men who had once owned Spieden Island, where we were camped. They’d set it up as one of those despicable hunting ranches where rich men come to shoot half-tame creatures. That business failed, but three animals they imported–Spanish sheep, light-skinned fallow deer from Europe, and Japanese sitka deer, whose warning yelp is the sharp, high, short cry of a bird–have thrived on the island, eating up its plants and new trees, so that the rolling hills of the place look like some kind of surreal park of huge trees with unnatural empty spaces between them.
The problem of getting a living puts me in mind of two different geniuses: Charles Darwin, who saw how the ferocious competition for a living shaped all life, and the Buddha, who intuited long before that every act has consequences rippling away from it in all directions, and that therefore, what you think of as evil is often a consequence of your position in the struggle for life. Hunting, for instance, is permitted on the island. This is evil if you happen to be a deer, and a positive good if you love rich forest which the deer are destroying. It takes a supreme rationality to realize that even if something is out to eat you, it isn’t evil. It’s just hungry. And that, for instance, the two blue herons I saw chasing each other in trees near my tent–with their big heads and long beaks, they looked, as Martine Springer says, like long-legged pterodactyls–were there for reasons that had nothing to do with me. I think this is what Buddhists mean by “mindfulness”–to look for connections, and to not project yourself onto the world.
About 50 yards away from my tent, up on a bluff, was a tall fir with a long, bare crown jutting up out of its leaves like a broomstick. A bald eagle was perched there, so I lay down next to my tent with some binoculars and tried to take it in. It was getting its living, too, methodically surveying land and sea, turning its head every few minutes like the lamp of a lighthouse. The striking thing about an eagle in a tree is that the animal is so outsized, 4 feet tall where you expect a bird to be 2. The chocolate-brown wings give an impression of muscle, and then of course, there’s the famous profile. This one’s crown had feathers slicked down by water, perhaps from an earlier hunt. When he looked in my direction I was surprised at how owl-like his white head was, domed and wide-staring, turning like a turret. At dusk, he tensed his tail feathers up, bowed his head slowly, and leapt off the tree, spreading his wings 6 feet wide and soaring over me before gliding into a 90 degree turn and disappearing west.
Thursday morning we all rose early amid much chuck-chucking and whistling and piping from the birds, and got ready for our last paddle as the sun came up over the ocean. As we headed away from Spieden we saw the dorsal fins and rolling black backs of porpoises, but they didn’t linger. Back near San Juan, Martine stopped us in a bed of bladder kelp–a species of algae that grows strong dark-amber cables (shiny and coppery, they look kind of industrial) from which radiate long, flat blades. We tasted kelp (not bad; McDonald’s was wise to put it in their low-fat burger) and looked for creatures.
Martine turned up a kelp crab, coppery as the kelp leaves and a little smaller than her hand. Disturbed crabs throw furious tantrums of self-defense. Plopped down on the deck of Martine’s kayak, this one reared and bristled, waving its two fighting claws. It attacked the nearest thing, rolling itself onto her paddle and pinching at it with all its legs. She picked it up by one leg, and the crab got her with a couple of pincers immediately. She tried to hold it by its shell but nothing would stop its lemme-at-’em fury, its legs writhing and pinching in all directions until she put it back down into the water onto a big kelp leaf, which sank under its weight. The crab went down fighting, still jabbing and pinching and raging, and our last sight of it was a single upstretched claw waving over the water, a boxer’s gesture of triumph, as in, hah, I got away. Crabs rule.
On the way back to our starting point I asked why it was called Smallpox Bay. Martine says it was because a tribe of people had lived around the place until they caught that European disease, and now the cove named for what killed them is all that’s left. Tribe follows tribe, again. Nobody rules forever. Which reminds me: My diary’s now over, just as I was getting the hang of it. That’s life.